This post by Alisa Golden exemplifies what it means to be union sisters/siblings. I met Alisa at the first general union meeting at California College of the Arts (CCA) after they had won their union election. Alisa quietly volunteered to take notes and when I asked her to send them to me they were spot on. I was shocked only because I had no real idea what the next steps of building a union were. It was my first time in the role of guiding people to do this and I only sortof understood what my supervisor was telling me. In her notes, Alisa unknowingly reflected back to me that my shifting identity from adjunct professor to union organizer was more solid than I realized.
Alisa found her own quiet form of leadership as she found her anger for how she was being treated after teaching at CCA for over a decade and also being a CCA alumni. She pushed past her comfort zone, “I don’t make phone calls, I don’t speak publicly” and became a union leader. Together we’ve built a genuine relationship, something that wouldn’t have been able to happen if I was only on campus for a semester slamming through an election. The extended campaign at CCA with the very intense boss fight has allowed trust between me as a union organizer and the CCA adjuncts to build to the point of those categories dissolving into a collaboratively created working model.
What’s also dissolving at CCA is the intense isolation that is part and parcel of being an adjunct professor without a union. I’ve watched very real friendships that did not previously exist for adjunct faculty develop through their union organizing. When Alisa writes about working inside of the system, I read that less about inside of political structures and more about the process of moving out of isolation and into participation- whatever form that takes.
What do you think?
Wading into Action
Just after the presidential inauguration and women’s march, a dear friend stated that he didn’t think marches helped anything. I said I’ve learned from my union work that marches gather and unify a community. The goal is visibility. This is an initial step and a crucial one to organizing. He conceded the point, but challenged me again when I said I thought that it was significant that the women’s march had more people than the inauguration. Why, he asked, in this age of instant flash mob, was it so significant? Anyone can get a large group of people together fast for a party.
Yes, I said, but more people came to the women’s party. That was what was significant. Those who came and those who witnessed can feel stronger in their fight knowing they are not alone.
I never expected to be in the thick of union work at our college. Two years ago, our adjunct faculty voted to join SEIU Local 1021. I had to push aside many veils before I found my place and discovered the work I needed to do. When the union organizers came to my school I was cordial but suspicious; I liked my job, things were fine, but I had been raised to believe in unions, so I would give them a chance. As an adjunct, I was led to believe that job insecurity was normal, that not having benefits was normal, that being expected to do unpaid work for the college and do everything the tenured faculty did, but for lower pay, was normal. It didn’t occur to me that this was poor treatment.
At the first organizing meeting, I sat in the back but agreed to take notes, which appealed to my writer self. I’d see how it went. Look at how many of us there were! We had been isolated, as was the nature of our job. I began to hear stories that the promotion process was arbitrary, and the goalposts were changed, depending on who you were or what the administration thought you had done. If you have ever felt like the underdog (high school, anyone?), or read books by authors such as Alice Walker or Maya Angelou, you have probably felt feelings of anger and frustration. Having been an advocate for a disabled child in schools and hospitals, my strong mama bear instinct was activated. I shifted my position from observer to participant. I would volunteer and help get the word out, be a conduit of information; I joined the Contract Action Team (the CAT). This was the first of many steps that led me deeper into union work. At each point I said, “Okay, but I’m only doing this.”
When the class I had taught for eleven years was removed from the schedule, I realized for myself that the system was broken. I had just been promoted again and given a pay raise but had no class to teach. I had thought that if I put in time and did a good job I would get rewarded, that my commitment would lead to a reciprocal commitment from the college. Not so. It took a personal issue to convince me to take action.
Through the union, I made my case before the administration. I was told I was entitled to nothing. Mama bear was livid.
Initially, I had been nominated to the bargaining team but declined. I knew it would involve a commitment of at least twelve hours a month, probably more. I cherished my free time. I hated meetings. I was an introvert and preferred to work by myself. I’d probably be impatient and frustrated. Besides, my blood pressure was creeping up. At the time I vowed, absolutely not.
As I became aware of the stakes of the fight, a spot opened up, and I eased onto the bargaining team. “Okay, but I’m only….” I joined four other adjuncts and two SEIU staff members and spent hundreds of summer hours researching college union contracts and writing our own; our goal was to craft proposals into a fair contract to help fix the system. That felt right. If we didn’t change working conditions today, what will happen to our students who want to be teachers in the future? We were working toward something larger than ourselves, part of a nationwide movement.
When I came on board I quickly learned that when one person spoke, everyone listened, and without interruptions. People were mindful of how long they spoke. Every point was considered. No one was criticized; it was very much like my favorite saying from
improvisational comedy, “Yes, AND.” Each person had strengths and all could be utilized. We took turns volunteering for harder jobs or situations where one would feel more exposed. We built trust. We were going to change working conditions. We were going to change lives.
It was tough sitting across from administrators who blocked and stalled at every meeting. We turned to actions. We had a rally. We wrote petitions. We plastered the campus with what administration later told us were our “ugly” signs. Negotiations began to crawl forward.
When they stalled, we put the pressure on. We collected stories of mistreatment, and I led a “bind-in” to sew the stories into chapbooks, which taught passing faculty and students a new skill and made us visible. At a Students of Color Coalition event, people read aloud from the book. We drafted an open letter, posted it online and found local luminaries in the arts to sign it. Our fight was now public, in the form of a public shaming.
Negotiations inched forward. We created cards for alumni to pledge that they would not volunteer, give money, or support the institution in any way until a fair union contract was signed. With these we aimed at administration’s finances. We began making progress.
While we could not change their minds about how they saw us, we were able to change procedures to be more open and gain some rights, hoping to put a limit on arbitrary and hurtful treatment. We knew we would do better work if we were not seen as interchangeable board game pieces but were treated like human beings. With respect.
During this time I had an opportunity to be part of an SEIU staff and member panel interviewing for new organizers; here I learned directly from the candidates about the organizing steps toward change: ask questions to find out where people are dissatisfied; show people the possibilities for something better; engage people at their level and with their abilities; put pressure on management through actions. All steps we did with the help of our lead organizer.
These steps apply globally. Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals (1971): “As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. …That means working in the system” (xix). We learn to build our base and support each other. We write contract proposals, we write to representatives. Research and write legislation that we want to see enacted. If we don’t write, then we do what we do best from where we are, with focus on the goal. Time to continue the work together. Let’s go.
Alisa Golden writes, makes art, and teaches bookmaking and letterpress printing. She is currently a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where she is on the union bargaining team working for a fair contract.